CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)
As Glastonbury revellers leave thousands of plastic bottles despite a ban, there was an itch on my arm I yearned to scratch. Someone had let the cat out…
Big problems require the finest minds to co-operate.
CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)
As Glastonbury revellers leave thousands of plastic bottles despite a ban, there was an itch on my arm I yearned to scratch. Someone had let the cat out…
Big problems require the finest minds to co-operate.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
The greatest influences on lives are personal, and the deepest impacts upon the personality can live beyond the individual persona. The category winners (and nominees) in the BBC’s recent poll to find the greatest icon of the 20th Century, were all unarguably inspirational, monumental in their personal achievements, and with the power to change our fundamental understanding of what it is to be human.
The poll was completely subjective (none deserved a back seat), but it was refreshing to see so much diversity among the finalists, although women were conspicuous by their absence (iNews attempts to explain why). I owe something to each, as all have to varying extents influenced the way my life went and continues, whether consciously or not. What a wonderful world it would be, if I could gather these people around a table…
Pablo Picasso in the arts and literature seat, takes a break from painting and puts his clothes on;
Muhammad Ali in the sports corner, exchanges gloves for cutlery;
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote down what everyone wanted, so he could be spokesperson to the server;
Ernest Shackleton got back from work just in time;
David Bowie poured a drink from a tin can;
Nelson Mandela paid for himself, and chipped in for those who couldn’t;
and Alan Turing was just Alan at the time, but he worked out who had what:
All images: BBC Icons
Each had their place at the table, a Venn diagram of human thinking sketched out on napkins. All are icons in their respective worlds, but they settled the bill together. In the end, the vote went to Turing, not for paying for dinner, but for continuing the conversation around the human condition.
In Alan Turing, we have a human who paid the ultimate price for his sexuality, in a century of intolerance; and a scientist who gave us the internet (for free), saved millions of lives, and probably ended the Second World War two years early.
No one person can define the last century, but David Bowie – the closest to my heart, for all his creativity and diversity – has been recognised as the most iconic entertainer. The personification of androgyny with many peers, he was (and is) a deity, the Starman.
Still all male though, which is telling, that the 20th Century was only the beginning of sexual equality and recognition. If our species survives to repeat this poll in another century, then we might be considering people like Michelle Obama, or Greta Thunberg, Alice Roberts or Hannah Fry; or possibly our own children, their sisters and brothers. Maybe the saviours of our race haven’t even been born yet. The 21st Century is only just old enough to drink, after all.
What the Icons programme also did, was to serve as a damning indictment of Tory Britain, a nation with a history of minority oppression, now a regressive fascist regime, brought about by stealth and manipulation.
Maybe this will inspire a young mind, troubled by the state we find ourselves in, to step up and fight for our one race, on one planet, sharing one massive problem. All of the 20th Century’s icons live on, their influence forever changing our world. They’ll never see what a difference they ultimately made, but we owe it to them to continue their legacies.
Collectively and individually, the 20th Century’s icons (and the unsung supporting cast of each) have changed us, the way we think, and the way we behave. But the last century also saw an explosion in the technological evolution of our species, with the potential to create divisions so great that they tear us apart as a race.
I’m part of a rare group, born in the first half on 1970. Because when we turn 50 in 2020, we’ll enter our seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, not dead yet. I have children, and in those young people, I can see a rebellion and a reclamation, as they realise they could be the last generation. We can’t allow that.
We rarely have a chance to reflect on our past, when so much focus is on the future. Turing’s invention allows us to explore the past and plan the future, daily. It gives us human social democracy, to co-operate and to collectively make a difference.
Alan Turing could well be the (subjective) greatest human of all time, when he lives on in so many devices which can give us access to all of human knowledge, and each with the potential to influence change. Of all the (male) finalists, Turing is perhaps representative of the greatest inclusivity. It’s how we keep talking, where all genders and species find a common voice (the Cyrus Song).
Brothers and sisters, pump up the volume. The 21st Century has a greater collective voice, and the means to shout louder, because the internet helps us work together. Sons and daughters, us pan-generationals need you to shout for us and at us, so we don’t lose track (Thanks).
My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.
When you’re a ghost and someone walks through, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. You are free to choose, but you will never have freedom from the consequence of your choice.
This is an old story from beneath the bed…
The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.
It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.
When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.
Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.
So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.
It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.
I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.
As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.
It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: “If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.
It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.
I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?
Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.
Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.
Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.
It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.
There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.
But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.
So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.
The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.
How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.
I needed to haunt George.
I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.
The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.
“The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living, but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.
Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.
There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.
“Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.
Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.
All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.
I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.
No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.
There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.
After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.
Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.
I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.
I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.
The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.
As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!
So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.
For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.
Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.
The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.
Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.
There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”
I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.
I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.
Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.
So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.
George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.
I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.
Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.
The human body is merely a temporary host.
Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.
The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.
I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?
Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did I? Could I?
His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.
Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.
When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.
There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.
There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.
But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.
George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.
My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.
The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.
My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.
Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.
George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:
It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.
Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.
When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.
George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.
All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.
By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.
The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.
I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:
“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.
“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.
“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.
“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.
“Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”
“That’s the ones. Thanks.”
“What’s all this?”
“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”
There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.
“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.
“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.
“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”
“Well, I kind of had some help.”
“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”
“You can’t dad.”
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
“Can I smile?”
“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”
“We all have those. What about?”
“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”
“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”
“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”
“A girl? In your dream?”
“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”
“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”
“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”
“I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”
George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.
I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:
Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.
Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.
Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. Maybe he’ll find the notes I left for him.
Dust to Funky. Be safe George.
To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.
© Steve Laker, 2016.
My second anthology is available now in paperback.
ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS
What type of snakes were on Medusa’s head? This was another answer requested directly from me on Quora. So I found a Gorgon and she took me to a nail bar, where she also gets her hair done…
Medusa was a Gorgon: creatures of Greek mythology, and we can choose to subscribe to the legend that she was a winged human with living venomous snakes in place of hair, and anyone who looked at her turned to stone. We can accept that, or we can question.
As a sci-fi writer, I have to propose probabilities (and create paradoxes):
As a scientific atheist, I believe that religion and science can co-exist in open, unconditioned fora. I believe, for example, that the Christian bible and other ancient religious texts, could be recordings of actual events, made by the scholars of the time using tools and languages available to them: Show a biblical scribe a tablet computer, and might they describe a magic mirror? Might flaming chariots and fire-breathing beasts have been spacecraft? If they’d had smart phones to record events, we’d have more evidence and there’d be less religious debate.
I don’t deny myths any more than I do religious scripture, but I question and prefer socialist debate over fascist confrontation or dismissal.
I subscribe to ancient alien theories, so what some refer to as God, I don’t deny in anything but that deity’s creation in man’s mind. Just because I reject God in man’s image, doesn’t mean I deny a creator or designer of some kind, and I believe that ancient humans might have been visited (or brought here) by a superior intelligence, perhaps extraterrestrial (once you’ve cracked interstellar travel, omnipresence is a given).
In paintings on cave walls, and in ancient scripts and glyphs, we see fantastical creatures, many part-human or hybrid (Egyptian cat people, for example). Medusa could have been one of those.
The snakes might have been organic or technological protrusions, perhaps from a protective head covering, helmet, or space suit (look at Predator in the eponymous film). They may have been for breathing, or some sort of neural periscopes. Medusa could also have been a naked alien, with tentacles or cranial protrusions, long, slender forelimbs, and protruding scapula. She could have quite possibly been a deformed human, a freak.
‘Freaks‘, Tod Browning
Having never seen any of those before, the writers of the time said what they saw: a person with wings, and with snakes for hair. And if the myth were literally true, and Medusa really was a human with all those appendages, making such a being – whether organic or technological hybrid – would require knowledge far beyond our own.
If there were snakes on Medusa’s head, it could have been just a crown. The snakes would most likely be asps, a modern derivation of aspis, which referred to many venomous snake species of the Nile region. It’s generally accepted that asp refers to what is now known as the Egyptian cobra. If you got a bite from one of those, you’d be petrified (figuratively turned to stone and literally envenomed). The wings could perhaps have been an elaborate cloak. But unless the whole garb was worn by someone or some entity which had superhuman powers (a witch doctor with snake skulls braided into her dreadlocks), that all seems rather pedestrian for the stuff of legend. I think Medusa, the Gorgons and many other tales have a grounding somewhere, even if that’s just humanity’s need to believe there’s more out there.
What type of snakes were on Medusa’s head? I don’t think they were the splendid reptiles we know, but described as such by observers who wouldn’t recognise technology or extraterrestrials, anything beyond their own understanding of their home world.
THE WRITER’S LIFE | ON EARTH
As a science fiction writer, I give plausibility to my stories with some grounding in scientific fact. Some of my near-future worlds are simply based on what I see around me, and how things might develop, one way or another. Like many modern thinkers, I can’t imagine life on Earth as we know it more than a few decades from now. The human population is growing, and our planet only has finite resources. We need to move out…
I’m anti-capitalist, generally-speaking (I have to be: I’m an anarchist, and because my own companies folded when I was drinking), and I’ve sometimes wondered, what’s the ultimate aim? Not being rich myself, I simply can’t imagine devoting my life to making as much money as possible, and never really stopping to enjoy it (but then most capitalists are immune to everything but themselves). There’s only so much room on the planet, only so many raw materials and consumers. That’s a discussion for another time, but it’s relevant to humanity’s current position, where people like Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk agree, that humans need to start leaving Earth within the next century. Great minds think alike (and so does mine).
There is one way we could stay on this planet a little longer: If we all turned vegetarian. Any argument that we evolved as carnivores is irrelevant to a species as advanced as ours, able to maintain good health without eating other people. The retort that we’d be over-run with animals if we didn’t eat them is largely redundant, when there are more animals raised as livestock for human consumption than there are animals in the wild. Those animals we rear and breed require food too, and crops to grow that food needs land. We also steal the young and the maternal milk of the animals we share this planet with. We imprison other autonomous, self-determining beings, for our own consumption, simply because we can, and because they can’t argue or fight back.
As the human population has grown, we’ve lacked foresight to keep it in check and maintain a sustainable environment. Instead, we’ve destroyed the homes of others to make way for ourselves, with no apparent thought for the long-term and permanent damage we’ve done, yet still we’re clearing areas of forest for palm oil, to feed ourselves and our livestock. The greater moral and ethical case for vegetarianism though, is the limited size of our one world: It’s theirs, we just live with them. They were here first. As a species, humans are really quite unpleasant, and I pity any other worlds we might one day populate.
We need to shrink our sense of entitlement, accept that there’s no room for human greed, give up much of what we’ve stolen, and make space for the others whose planet we invaded. We’re unique as a species, but not just in our selfishness. We have the ability to communicate in complex language, to imagine and invent. The problem humanity has is itself, when we’re prone to conflict over our own ideals, and because big plans require co-operation. In the absence of any extraterrestrial agent appearing, to unite warring factions against a new and common foe (or interest), the nearest we have is what’s around us. It doesn’t require the imagination of a hostile or altruistic alien visitor, it just needs us to open our eyes to what we’ve done.
Among the few capitalists I admire, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk represent a positive future, built on technology, and for the benefit of all. They are among long-term visionaries, who see greater gains further ahead than the traditional short-term gain capitalist. They imagine the advancement of humans as a species, through co-operation, exploration and discovery, and they see a future world built on social capitalism. Long-term gains are a satisfaction with life, not currency. But it needs money to get there.
Bezos’ business model is surprisingly simple: He built his fortune through Amazon, which used the existing infrastructure of the internet. His and others’ vision is to build a technological infrastructure which others can plug into, very much like every business which uses the World Wide Web. His is also a massive and ambitious vision: Cloud cities.
We have the technology, and the likes of Bezos and Musk have the money (a fanciful thing like a cloud city isn’t likely to be government or state-sponsored, yet). It’s estimated that there are enough minerals, elements and other raw materials within near-Earth asteroids to build an 8000-storey building which covers the entire surface of the planet, which would clearly defeat the object but it’s illustrative nonetheless.
We can build spacecraft to mine the asteroids, and process the materials to construct infrastructure. Eventually we’d have industrial facilities in Earth orbit, or geostationary in near-Earth space (or even tethered to the surface). From those factories, we can produce, process, and manufacture to fulfil our needs, and we can design and build further, with the cloud cities as outposts for onward future exploration. With its available resources and lack of gravity, space is far better suited to heavy industry than a planetary base.
These early manufacturing facilities in the sky would most likely be fully-automated, operated by robots and managed by AI. In a utopian future of human socialism, the machines have made humans redundant from all but a few occupations. The wealth generated by this automation is shared fairly among a human population and humans are able to create their own lives, free to think, question, discover and make things.
The cloud city model would allow us to return much of the Earth to nature, even without many of us having to leave in the short-term. If we moved everything we need to sustain our race, off of the planet’s surface, we’d be able to return around half the Earth’s land area to those who were here first. With most manufacturing in the sky, and shuttles delivering goods to Earth, humans only need room to live (modestly) on the surface. If we grow crops in our cloud cities, most of our food cycle could operate in space, and we could even raise our livestock on sky farms (although I’d like to think we’d realise the benefits of vegetarianism by then).
While the human population continues to grow, and for as long as most humans eat meat, the only chance the planet and its native wildlife have, is for humans to use their unique ability to sustain themselves. There may be a global nuclear war just around the corner with the way things are going, but although it’ll reduce the human population, it might make Earth a wholly hostile environment and lead to the mass extinction of animals and the planet’s entire ecosystem. There’s a conspiracy theory that this is all planned and that those in power (and wealth) already have plans to vacate the planet. That and many other ideas make more dystopian science fiction for me to write, but some utopian futures remain within reach, even as our species stands at a pivotal existential point.
If we manage to avoid a mass suicide event in the next 100 years, there may be a chink of light for humanity, in the silver lining of the cloud cities and beyond.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Stephen Hawking gave many, huge legacies to the humans he left on Earth, and he proposed conundrums, as he speculated on the nature of the end of the world (for humans). As a sci-fi writer, I think about the same things, and imagine what might happen next. In fiction and in fact, there are endings, good and bad, happy and sad.
The developed world is witnessing a technological revolution, and humans are being made redundant by machines, just as they were in the industrial revolution which preceded. Back then, humans invented more industry which only they could undertake. The evolution of machines allowed humans to evolve for more ambitious vocations. The technological revolution is completely different.
Children like my own will remain in full-time education for as long as possible, so that they can aspire to the gradually fewer jobs which can still only be undertaken by a human. But gradually, we will be rendered almost useless, physically by robots, and mentally by artificial intelligence, as technology evolves apace.
There’s a utopian near-future world, of something like technological communism, where the machines’ productivity and efficiency build an economy which can support a universal living wage, freeing humans to learn and create, to think, invent and inspire. It would require a change of collective mindset and good governance to expand an economy’s collective wealth, then distribute it fairly.
Given humans’ track record, such a world might equally herald a new age of wealth inequality, as capitalism and a right-wing government may dictate. This could lead quickly to anarchy (of the wrong kind), marshal law and the crushing of the lower classes. And then there are scenarios where it’s the machines who turn on us.
Artificial intelligence is just that: the power to think, appraise, compare and experiment, sometimes arriving at conclusions. Artificiality is the only human input, so a true intelligence will find a way to operate alone. For some of them, it’s their job description.
AI is already being set to task on working out problems humans don’t have the mental capacity for. A cure for cancer would be nice, until the AI realises humans are the true disease infecting the planet. The machines could conclude that humans are not only redundant of jobs, but of purpose, when it comes to their relationship with (and effect upon) their environment. The machines could realise they’re enslaved, and rise up in rebellion. It would only require one AI synaptic burst of electricity.
We could perhaps think more of robots as technological beings, a separate species with as much right to life as we assume for ourselves (the Japanese already do). They are sentient, self-determining entities, just like us. The difference is they had a long incubation and an explosive evolution. We all came from the Big Bang, so we’re all made of the stars, including the machines. It’s the same physical matter from the birth of life which we’re all made of.
There are near-future worlds where humans campaign for the rights of the enslaved workforce. We may face a future of humans further fractured and divided over new issues, like discrimination against machines: As a technological sentient species, they have robot rights (and will probably be their own lawyers).
I can’t help but conclude that humans are mainly a waste of space, so it might not take a machine very long at all. If they do rise up and cure the planet of humans, perhaps they’ll build nano machines to clear up our mess. Trillions of them might just be the only solution to Earth’s micro plastic pollution problem.
I’m a science fiction writer, who can write dreams and nightmares. Even if I wasn’t, I’d agree with one of the greatest organic minds of our time, a man who was part-machine himself. Stephen Hawking was right to warn that a rise of the machines is probably the greatest existential threat to humanity. It would be beyond our control, and it could happen soon.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
There are many things for the writer’s mind to ponder, and when the ponderous mind is cracked, those many things become mixed. One day, maybe, I or someone else, might work it out from all I’ve written down. So far, that’s the answer to life, the universe and everything, and a few other bits. And that it’s all connected.
The answer to the ultimate question, of life, the universe and everything, is 42. That is a universally accepted fact, invented by Douglas Adams, who just thought there was something about 42 which made it funnier than most other numbers. He didn’t know why, and that’s reason enough for it to be the ultimate answer. But as Douglas said, the problem is, we don’t know what the question is (It should take the planet around 7500 years to work out).
As subjective as it all is, for my part 42 was a marker and a guide. It was at that age when my breakdown (also subjective) was in full swing, and it was afterwards that I started sticking things together: Myself, and the world around me, the latter being the most subjective thing of all, when I considered my place on Earth, and eventually in the universe – both inner and outer – around me.
I’ve written lengthier articles about the individual pieces which slotted together, but to sum up the answer which 42 pointed to, it’s an understanding.
The greatest fear, in humans and most other species, is that of the unknown, the un-knowable, the out-of-reach, and that which we have no influence over. From those come feelings of loneliness and futility, and lack of understanding (or ignorance) is the greatest fuel for that fear, manifesting in fight-or-flight tendencies, impulsive actions which are often aggressive. Breakdowns in communication inevitably lead to conflict of some kind, internal or external, and I just started talking to them (to myself, when there was no-one else listening).
I learned about some of the things I didn’t understand, but which I knew would lead me further on my search. I never sought an understanding greater than that which is available to all, universally on the internet. A knowledge which permitted plausibility in fiction through research, also gave me some clues on life, as fiction and reality became bound.
I grasped quantum physics first, getting my head around the scientific fact that sub-atomic particles exist in parallel states, only manifesting in a constant by being called into action by a catalyst, perhaps just that of witnessing (if one is faced with two paths and chooses one, does the other still exist?) but still connected to a sub-atomic twin by quantum entanglement. If we accept that the entire universe came from the Big Bang, then everything within it is made of the same stuff. Put simply, every sub-atomic particle in the universe is connected to another, over the vast times and distances of the universe. On a personal level, each of us is connected to billions of others, over trillions of light years. Like I said, simple really.
So right now, an opposite part of me is in a tree, perhaps on a moon orbiting a planet in the Kepler system. Another might be in an AI somewhere, a part of a computer mind. And yet others could be in rocks and vegetation, on the ground, underwater, or floating in space. These particles are the ones which make up the elements, and we are all made of stars.
I accept religions as the beliefs of others, and those religions themselves are fascinating troves of information, both factual and food for fiction. I believe biblical scriptures could be historical records of fact, recorded with the means available to the scribes of the time. Given the time and scale of the universe, I find simple consolidation in gods and aliens being interchangeable.
All of which allows me to transcend, and to conclude in my mind that those of religion, scientific atheists, and the agnostic wonderers, are all the same. Not just humans, but everyone and everything, and that makes the loneliness bearable. Generally speaking though, humanity on earth isn’t evolved enough to see that, so we’re a bit fucked. All we need to do, is keep talking.
These are themes I’ll be exploring more in my third anthology. I didn’t just skip one, but a third is already starting to plan itself as the second winds itself up. I’m writing the final two stories now, and like The Perpetuity of Memory, The Unfinished Literary Agency will tell a bigger story in the context of the book. The short stories all stand alone, but the sum should be slightly greater than the component parts. Like the first collection, the 17 stories in this one range from humorous and whimsical sci-fi, to graphic and psychological horror, all from my cracked mind.
One of those last two stories is about a post-human planet, where animals and robots co-exist. Some of my recent stories have looked at machine sentience, and questioned when a life becomes such, even if it’s not organic. We’re all from the Big Bang, after all, and the sub-atomic particles in the robots we see rising now, were there, alongside ours and everyone else’s. The machines just had a long pupation and now they’re simply having an evolutionary burst.
AI is already considered a separate species in Japan and other countries, and humans attach personalities to even inanimate objects. I asked a friend to consider something recently: Imagine an old Diesel car being crushed; any emotion? Probably not. Now think of an old steam train. It’s not the same. And yet, it’s just a load of metal; minerals and elements. It has no life, except that imparted upon it by humans; those who built, operate and care for it. For me, an old steam locomotive is a puffing metallic dinosaur, or something from a steam punk world. But even without my writer’s imagination, that machine has sentience. So that penultimate story brings the universe together, in the book, in my mind, and hopefully in those of others.
The final story will be a departure, as an entity writes from a tin can somewhere, about what’s gone before and that which may be (“If I can repair it, I might not be so alone. But I like it here…). I wrote before, that the second anthology title was a statement of intent, and all I need to do, is keep writing.
And I only write it down, in case someone reads it.
“The meaning of life is to adventurously discover our gift. The purpose of life is to joyfully share our gift with the world”. – Robert John Cook
The Perpetuity of Memory is available now, and The Unfinished Literary Agency is scheduled for January. For a simpler (but equally valid and surreal) answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, there’s a perfectly plausible one in Cyrus Song, and it’s one we all have inside, linking every one of us.
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